Vanderbilt’s season-opener Saturday against Northwestern was a tale of two quarterbacks.
In his first start, Northwestern’s Dan Persa was nearly flawless Vanderbilt’s Larry Smith had high moments but also some lows, and the Commodores came up short, 23-21 before a crowd of 37,210 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
On a two-point conversion attempt to tie the game with 2:25 left, Smith failed to handle a mistimed snap due to miscommunication between the quarterback and center. The ball still was within Smith’s reach, but sailed past him and was recovered by Northwestern.
“Unfortunately we weren’t able to get the two-point conversion,” Smith said. “But we fought hard and came up a little short. … We gave it all out there (Saturday) night. I’m proud of the guys and proud of myself.
“We just have to bounce back next week against LSU.”
The Wildcats maintained possession for the remainder of the contest, but only after they recovered a Persa fumble with 1:53 left. Before that, the junior who had appeared in 21 contests without a start completed 19 of 21 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns. He also led the Wildcats in rushing with 82 yards on 17 carries.
“It’s more of a credit to my receivers than anything else,” Persa said. “They made some great catches for me, everybody did. The line gave me some good protection and I was a beneficiary of that.”
Smith could not match Persa’s accuracy. The Commodores’ quarterback completed 19 of 33 passes with one touchdown and an interception. He added 48 rushing yards on 14 attempts.
“(Smith) struggled a bit in the beginning but he’s a good leader,” Caldwell said. “I think sometimes he presses too hard. All we can tell him to do is relax and play. He’s going to be a fine player for us.”
Vanderbilt outgained Northwestern 432 to 365, but mistakes and missed opportunities determined the outcome.
Running back Zac Stacy got the Commodores in position to attempt the game-tying two-pointer with a 33-yard touchdown run on the right side. That was just over two minutes after Persa’s third touchdown pass of the night, a 2-yard throw to Josh Rooks.
The high point for Smith came late in the third quarter with his team down 17-9. On a third-and-14 inside Northwestern territory, he scrambled right before he connected with tight end Brandon Barden for a 36-yard touchdown.
That also got the Commodores within two, 17-15, and also prompted a two-point conversion attempt. On that one, Smith attempted a quarterback draw but was stopped well short of the goal line.
“We rushed it; we practiced it so many times and the excitement of a young bunch I guess … it’s hard to say,” Caldwell said. “That part was frustrating. But the next time we do it, we’ll do it perfect.”
Vanderbilt’s previous drive ended in Northwestern territory when Smith failed to connect with Barden, and Northwestern cornerback Justan Vaughn intercepted the pass. Earlier in the third, Smith dodged an interception when cornerback James Kurzawski failed to corral an errant throw that hit him in the chest.
The Commodores turned to their defense to keep them in the game when the offense struggled. Defensive captain T.J. Greenstone blocked and recovered a Northwestern field goal attempt to keep the game 17-15 at the end of the third quarter. They also capitalized on good field possession at the end of the first half following a John Stokes fumble recovery and cut an early 10-point deficit to one, 10-9, at halftime.
But the VU defense couldn’t keep up with the speedy Persa, particularly early. He rushed for 73 yards rushing in the first half, but was sacked three times in the second.
“To see a guy come out in his first true start, go 19-21 in the passing game and carry the ball 17 times, I think it speaks volumes of who he is as a competitor,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.